History

A SHORT HISTORY OF FORT POINT

Jacob Higginbottom

Jacob Higginbottom

by Don Eyles

The neighborhood now known as Fort Point lies along the east bank of the Fort Point Channel. To get there from near South Station use the Summer Street or Congress Street bridge. The giant milk bottle on Museum Wharf is Fort Point’s best known landmark.

This land was originally a tidal marsh. “Coarse grass tufted the little hillocks which rose at intervals to relieve the monotony of sand, mud and sluggish sea water captured by the inlets and held in pools at the change of the tides,” in the words of one writer.

The original Fort Point was located on the other side of the Fort Point Channel where the double cylinder of International Place now stands. In colonial times a battery of cannon was posted there to protect the inner harbor. As Boston grew, the hill that dominated the point was leveled and the soil used to fill the coves on either side. Neither the fort nor the hill nor the point still exists. “Fort Point” became a name in search of a neighborhood.

Meanwhile, the Boston waterfront, including the Fort Point Channel, teemed with the ocean-going sailing vessels that supported the economy of New England. In 1836, to provide additional wharf space, a group of ship owners incorporated as the Boston Wharf Company purchased a strip of land along First Street in South Boston and acquired rights to the tidelands to the north. Using earth taken from Nook’s Hill near Andrew Square, and later rubble from the great Boston fire of 1872, the Company began to fill in the marsh. Dig and you can find patches of charcoal, twisted ironwork, shoe soles, fragments of old bottles and plates. Sheds used for the storage of sugar and molasses, imported from the Caribbean to supply the city’s sugar refineries and rum distilleries, were the first buildings on the new land. At mid-century a railroad yard called the South Boston Freight Terminal came into existence to handle raw materials arriving, and manufactured goods departing, by ship. In the 1880’s, the Boston Wharf Company turned from wharfage to real-estate development and began to construct the masonry buildings that still stand. The first was at 321-327 Congress Street.

During the nineteenth century Fort Point was connected to Boston by the Mount Washington Avenue Bridge, and by the Eastern Railroad Bridge, near what is now Summer Street, which carried rail traffic from the south to a station at the site of today’s South Station. The Mount Washington Avenue Bridge was removed in 1909. A few decaying pilings are still visible in the Fort Point Channel across from the small park at the end of New Binford Street.

At the turn of the century new bridges were constructed at Northern Avenue, Congress Street and Summer Street. Originally all three spans opened to allow vessels to pass through. The Channel was navigable as far as Massachusetts Avenue and the bowsprits of docked schooners extended over Albany Street in the South End. The only bridge that still opens, the Old Northern Avenue Bridge, no longer carries vehicular traffic, having been replaced by the nearby, fixed-span Evelyn Moakley Bridge.

By the 1920’s Fort Point had become diversified. A major participant was the wool trade, which moved to the area after the Summer Street Bridge was opened in 1900. Wool from around the world passed through Fort Point on its way to the textile mills of New England. Other goods manufactured or warehoused in the area included iron, glass. brick, machinery, wagons, soap, elevators and beer. In the 1940’s many of these businesses began to move elsewhere and buildings became vacant. The remaining sheds were razed to create parking lots. The last wool merchant, Forte, Dupee and Sawyer, departed in 2000.

The first artist known to have crossed the Fort Point Channel in search of a studio was sculptor Christopher Sproat, in March, 1976. Sproat and other artists had been displaced by a fire at the Plante Shoe Factory building in Jamaica Plain. Sproat brought back tales of the abundant, affordable space that was available in the sturdy timber and masonry buildings of Fort Point, still owned by the same Boston Wharf Company that had literally created the land – now a subsidiary of the British, Peninsular and Orient Steam Navigation Company. Sproat and Domingo Barreres leased the fifth floor of 34 Farnsworth Street. Other artists alertly followed and found Bob Kenney at Boston Wharf willing to write leases they could afford. A building not owned by Boston Wharf, the Mondo Condo building at 326 A Street (so dubbed by an anonymous graffitist) became the first legal residential building in Fort Point.

By the end of 1980 the neighborhood had held its first Open Studios (in May) and formed the Fort Point Arts Community (FPAC) to represent its interests and serve as a clearing house for studio space. Since then, Fort Point has hosted the largest concentration of visual artists in New England and in 2010 will open its studios to the public for the thirty-first consecutive year.

Supported by grants, FPAC hired Jero Nesson as a full-time paid director in April, 1982. His ambition to find live-work space that artists could not only lease, but securely own, came to fruition in August, 1983 with the purchase of 249 A Street by a group of artists. The building was built out with about 35 studios and set up as a limited-equity cooperative for visual artists, the first in New England. The artist-owned building at 300 Summer Street followed in 1995. The Mobius Artists Group, founded by Marilyn Arsem, moved into 354 Congress Street in 1983. In 1984 Jerry Beck founded the Revolving Museum with an installation called the Little Train that Could in abandoned railroad coaches near Fan Pier, and later moved into leased space at 288 (also known as 300) A Street.
During the 1980’s and 1990’s Fort Point artists tolerated published descriptions of the neighborhood as abandoned, in return for the sense of ownership that came from being the only people there after business hours. Floors in buildings known simply by their street number  63, 211, 215, 288, 319, 322, 327  were leased and subdivided until they honeycombed the hood in three dimensions. Dogs ran free. A club called The Channel at 25 Necco Street (roofline visible on the south-facing wall of 60 Necco Court) pumped out rock and roll. Later a kickball cult arose in the alley behind 288 A Street. Friday nights lasted until breakfast Saturday.

The huge Central Artery / Third Harbor Tunnel Project pierced the neighborhood in the mid-1990’s, slotting slurry walls 60 feet deep, stripping topsoil, scooping out a thick layer of quivery blue clay to uncover load-bearing soil brought here by glaciers 20,000 years ago. In full view, in huge excavations flanking A Street, the highway that connects the Massachusetts Turnpike and the Ted Williams Tunnel took form.

The area west of A Street became a casting basin where tunnel sections were cast in concrete, then floated into the Fort Point Channel to be sunk onto prepared footings – a method unprecedented in scale, devised to protect the century-old, brick Red Line tunnel that runs down the middle of the Channel. On the ceiling of the straightaway that occurs between the South Boston ramps and the tunnel portal across the Channel you can see the seams between the floated tunnel segments. The audacious engineering going on around them was transmuted in the work of many artists. The departure of the Big Dig from the neighborhood around 2000 was the trigger for many changes.
A New Northern Avenue leading to the Moakley Bridge has become the main thoroughfare serving the new hotel and office buildings that have grown up near the World Trade Center, formerly Commonwealth Pier. The older, iron Northern Avenue Bridge has been saved from destruction, so far, but other iron bridges have perished, most lamentably the rolling lift railway bridge behind South Station that once graced Fort Point’s westward vista.

To the north, the Federal Courthouse squats on Fan Pier, blind to the neighborhood around it. Nearby, the striking new embodiment of the Institute of Contemporary Art, designed by Diller and Scofidio, has opened. To the east looms the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, designed by Rafael Vinoly. Efforts to double the size of this facility, extending its influence into the Fort Point neighborhood, are in the works. Across Summer Street a huge vent building that has been likened to a dead sheep with its legs in the air is aligned with the tunnels beneath it, but fits in awkwardly with the surface grid.

The ground shifted under the neighborhood between 2000 and 2005 when the neighborhood’s predominant landowner, the venerable Boston Wharf Company, benign landlord to hundreds of artists for thirty years, sold its properties. First the Gillette Company acquired 10 acres between A Street and the Fort Point Channel – now a parking lot. Beacon Capital Partners bought buildings on A Street and Midway Street, evicted the artists, built a new building on Midway (renamed Channel Center Street) and renovated another as condominiums,  and sold the remaining buildings, today renovated but mostly vacant, at a loss.

In 2002, before selling it, Boston Wharf ousted the Revolving Museum and numerous individual artists from the building at 288 A Street. The building was described in the media as a dusty warehouse but was actually a principal node of neighborhood activity. It is now an architect’s office and the developer is claiming credit for tenanting an empty building.

In 2005 Boston Wharf sold its last parcels to Archon/Goldman Properties (buildings on Summer, Melcher and A) and Berkeley Investments (Congress and Farnsworth). More artists were evicted. Archon acquired Boston Wharf’s name and relit its sign, but extinguished the old company’s cooperation with the artists’ community. There is every reason to expect the churning of ownership to continue as properties are acquired and resold by opportunistic companies with no special loyalty to this land.

Alone among the buyers of Boston Wharf properties Beacon Capital respected its debt to the artists’ community -in its role as a neighborhood builder – by facilitating the development of Fort Point’s third artist-controlled building by the Fort Point Development Collaborative (FPDC). Midway Studios opened in 2005 at 15 Channel Center Street, offering 89 studios for rental to artists of all stripes, and a new performance space that has been lit up by, among others, a group named the Fort Point Theatre Channel.
The Young Park, of Berkeley Investments, has since 2009 made available to the artists’ community an empty space at 12 Farnsworth Street, next to the Flour Café, which FPAC has transformed into a second gallery space supplementing the Gallery at 300 Summer Street , combined with a store, called Made in Fort Point, that offers artwork produced by Fort Point artists.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority has developed a plan for the 100 Acres (as they call our zone) that pays lip service to transforming Fort Point into a vibrant 24-hour mixed-use neighborhood. The plan includes concessions to livability such as a sliver of park linking A Street to the Fort Point Channel. In practice the BRA kowtows to the interests of developers and countenances a shell game in which developers seek and are granted development rights etched in stone, in return for commitments to the public benefit that are written in ambiguous language on foolscap in disappearing ink.

Today the neighborhood has more residents but fewer artists. The old struggle for affordable studio space has not ended, but new issues have arisen that affect everyone living or working in Fort Point alike. The original artists’ organization FPAC has been joined by several others. The Fort Point Cultural Coalition (FPCC), following up on successful projects by individual artists, has sponsored some of the provocative public art that has boosted artist visibility and influence. The Seaport Alliance for Neighborhood Design (SAND) has monitored development, built relationships, stimulated our vision of the future, and gotten out the news. The Fort Point Neighborhood Alliance (FPNA) brings together artists and other residents.

The argument for a mixed-use twenty-four-hour neighborhood, with appropriate density, keeping the unique character of Fort Point as it was formed over almost two centuries by nature, commerce and art , with insensitivity, rapacity and caprice sitting across the table , will continue.

Small victories have been won. A tiny park at the corner of A Street and Wormwood Street exists on the ground. The Boston Landmarks Commission has designated Fort Point as a landmark district, creating a standing commission charged with protecting the distinctive fabric of Fort Point. With greater population have come amenities such as a bar (Lucky’s), convenience store (Sagarino’s) and several restaurants such as Barlow’s at A Street and Binford, and Barbara Lynch’s Drink, Sportello and Menton on Congress Street. May 14, 2001. Office workers crossing the Summer Street Bridge walk barefoot in dewy grass touched by the rising sun. Stags appear astride a large pipe crossing the Fort Point Channel near the Congress Street Bridge. Funny, everyone is walking around in berets The curtain rises for a series of short plays on a proscenium stage in a parking lot. Who are those weirdos tramping around the marsh shouting ball? Is that your epoxy smoking? Is a lime juice container considered a ball? Careful, that board is rotten. Just bail the boat while I wire this damn shackle!

If you need 20 people at any hour to work on your project, just ask. That’s the blend of individuality and solidarity that defines Fort Point.

REFERENCES
I wrote the original version of this history in 1988 for the Ninth Annual Open Studios brochure, drawing chiefly on materials in the possession of Boston Wharf and on interviews. I have revised it several times to reflect later developments and the above version dates from July 2010. Below is a list of sources for further information about the past, present and future of Fort Point, some of which have led me to information used in this history. I apologize for any omissions, errors, or lack of tact. I can be contacted at eyles@RCN.com.
(1)The SAND web site www.bostonseaport.com  contains a late-breaking news section that goes back to 1997 and (top) a link to a neighborhood history written by Steve Hollinger.
(2)Consultant Sara Wermiel in 2003 wrote a fascinating report on Fort Point for the Boston Landmarks Commission, which can be found, along with other information about the Fort Point Channel Landmark District (FPCLD), at www.cityofboston.gov/landmarks/historic/fpc.asp, click on Study Report.
(3) Mike Tyrrell collected numerous interesting photos of Fort Point in Boston’s Fort Point District published by Arcadia with an introduction co-authored by Steve Hollinger.
(4)FPAC is at www.fortpointarts.org.
(5)FPCC is at www.fortpointculturalcoalition.org.
(6)FPNA is at www.fortpointneighborhood.org.
(6) FPDC (Midway Studios) is at www.fortpointdc.com.
Several artists projects were alluded to in the next-to-last paragraph of the history, as follows: dewy grass (Lisa Greenfield and Jennifer Moses); stags, epoxy and broken board (Melora Kuhn); berets(Jeff Smith); plays in the parking lot (Steve Hollinger et al); weirdos in the marsh and ball (Danny O); bail the boat (Don Eyles).